Paying attention changes everything

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Do you really remember? How was it different from yesterday? What clothes was the person you are most emotionally attached to wearing yesterday?

Chances are you don’t remember any of this and the reason is because your brain filters out most of it to help save processing effort and energy. In doing so it also ascribes specific value to all of these things without you being aware of it.

We “pay attention” because we actually think it is valuable. When we do our brain allocates extra resources and we create stronger, more detailed and longer-lasting memories about it. This is why people in love remember things about each other and shared experiences so clearly. Love is described from a neuroscientific point of view as “an all-encompassing experience”.

Similarly and for the exact same reason taking notes by hand allows us to remember things way better than when we use a computer. The act of typing is a distraction in itself. As we focus on it we transcribe what happens in a meeting or a lecture room on autopilot. Our brain is too focused on capturing the words and typing to actually think about them. The low-tech writing by hand approach however presents an entirely different process:

  • Writing by hand is almost automatic for us. We barely have to think about it the way we do about the more mechanically intensive typing on a keyboard.
  • It is also slower than typing. When we can no longer keep up with human speech, the automatic and largely blind transcription process stops. We now have to listen and think.
  • It requires processing. Before we write anything now we need to actively think about what is being said. Identify importance based upon context and relevance to us and then summarize it so we can write it down quickly.
  • It aids memory formation. The process described above helps the brain form better, longer-lasting memories about what’s being said.
  • It is exclusive. Writing is a mono-medium. We may scribble doodles in the margins of our notebook but they are incidental and we quickly run out of space. Typing on a keyboard however implies a laptop or a notebook at the very least. These are multi-faceted devices that give us access to many other activities at once. Our attention then is not just on the typing but also (usually) on the email and social media notifications that come in. Writing has none of these inherent distractions.

So, how do you fix this? What do you do, exactly?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Pay attention. Become more observant. Notice the details of seeing and experience the act itself, and its impact.

Vision is mostly mental. That provides a really handy means of actually rewiring the brain. By training it to pay attention to details we begin to experience a side of reality that is normally closed to us because we are not actively looking for it.

Words, sounds, sensations, they all have an effect and that effect becomes a cause which delivers another effect. Emotions, moods, thoughts suddenly become clarified in association with environmental stimuli and the sensations we are feeling. What is more interesting however is what happens to the brain when we start to really pay attention. We become methodical. Analytical. Measured in our approach. This allows us to not just “see” more of the reality we are looking for but also understand the dynamic relationships governing it better and increases the likelihood of our achieving the outcomes we want.


Go Deeper: 

Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland